The first two-volumes-in-one collection of this series remains one of the high points for my comics reading experience this year. Mangaka Kengo Hanazawa found a unique take on the zombie genre by making its protagonist, Hideo Suzuki, a mentally disturbed individual who happens to be one of Japan’s few gun owners. While the first half of the debut omnibus showed us a series that could’ve easily worked as a character study that chronicles a man’s downward mental spiral, the (fast) zombie outbreak hits and Hideo suddenly has to deliver on his belief that he is a hero.
This was great stuff, and it read even better because the omnibus format allowed us to get a really good understanding of Hideo’s character and the initial outbreak. Thanks to Carl Horn at Fanime, I also learned that Philip Simon, the book’s editor, was the person responsible for this format. As I said before, he deserves a goddamn medal for that because I don’t think that the series would read as well if we had to wait three months between volumes. This is made even more clear in this latest omnibus as we see that Hanazawa is committed to his slow-burn approach to storytelling even at the expense of pacing.
While the first omnibus left off with Hideo finding his way onto a train car where the people onboard hadn’t become aware of the outbreak, the quiet doesn’t last long. The (former, I guess) mangaka finds himself back in the city briefly before winding up in a horrifyingly tense taxi ride. From there, he heads out into the wilderness for a long, dark night alone with the thoughts in his head. Upon waking up, he encounters Hiromi Hayakari, a schoolgirl on a class trip to a nature lodge out in these woods. They may seem to make for unlikely partners at first. However, when you consider that her “friends” bullied her before they became infected and Hideo has a gun, then their partnership starts to make a lot more sense.
The problem with this second omnibus isn’t that nothing important happens in it. It just feels like Hanazawa takes forever to get to the interesting stuff. After an action-packed beginning, the pace drops off quickly once Hideo finds his way into the woods. We spend a few chapters as our protagonist sorts things out in his mind and things start to drag as a result. While Hiromi’s introduction does add a bit of energy and a new character dynamic to consider, the narrative still remains somewhat sluggish as she gets to know Hideo and then they have to deal with her friends showing up.
While the slow pace in the middle of the omnibus is frustrating, it’s clear that Hanazawa feels that this is the right approach to illustrating his characters’ state of mind. Despite having a gun, it’s clear that Hideo isn’t going to turn into the zombie-killing action hero that Japan needs right now. He’s just too messed up for that to happen. Between his hallucinations, lingering guilt over how he had to put down his girlfriend, and an almost pathological commitment to following laws and social conventions, it’s actually quite impressive that he’s survived this long.
In fact, Hideo’s commitment to making sure he doesn’t cause any waves until it’s almost too late shouldn’t work in this kind of story. That it does is a testament to Kanazawa’s sterling character work earlier in the series. Hideo has already been established as someone who is obsessive-compulsive about how he opens his door and the little rituals he performs to keep himself safe. We’ve also seen him continually defer to others to defuse the most minor of conflicts in his job. Toss in the fact that the world of “I Am A Hero” has no existing zombie fiction, the fact that Hideo doesn’t bust out his rifle to take on the infected on the train actually makes a certain amount of sense. It’s why his taxicab ride with people he knows to be infected is so tense. You can understand how Hideo would try to convince himself that everything is normal before he has to take action when things start to go crazy.
(I also have to put in an aside about the taxi sequence. One of the passengers is an African-American who convinces the people in the cab to head to Yokota Air Force Base for help. However, by the time they arrive at the base, his infection has set in and he has started to turn. It’s not made explicitly clear in the art or the story, but the implication is that this character was shot by the military after he wouldn’t calm down or back off from the fence surrounding the base. These volumes were originally published in 2010, well before “Black Lives Matter” was a concern out here. There is nothing in the text to suggest any inherent racism on Hanazawa’s part as the main purpose of the scene is to show that the American military is also at the mercy of this outbreak. However, readers sensitive to this kind of subject matter should be aware that such a scene is briefly present in this volume.)
As for Hiromi, she makes for an interesting contrast with our protagonist and his state of mind. Hanazawa sketches her out to be an average high school girl whose main problem is dealing with the mild bullying she gets from her friends. Yet she’s able to make the best of the situation and that serves her well when she meets up with Hideo. Even if she’s a lot younger than he is, she’s far more composed than him and able to take the initiative in some key scenes. This leads to Hideo teaching her how to use his rifle, and pedaling a bike to get away while our hero rides on the back. In fact, with one big exception, most of Hideo’s behavior towards this girl could be described as downright unheroic. If he does believe that he’s a hero, then the man has a lot of work to do in order to live up to that ideal.
Or maybe he doesn’t. So far the series has effectively illustrated the divide between what Hideo proclaims himself to be and what he actually is. Maybe this series will wind up being a long-term examination of this divide, climaxing only when he either fails or succeeds in living up to it. Given the strength of the character work seen so far in these two omnibi, that seems like a really promising direction for this series to take. Of course, I just hope Hanazawa decides to show it to us in a more expedient manner than he’s done so far.